New York Islanders vs. Pittsburgh Penguins Game 1 Odds, Pick: Are the Isles a Live Underdog on Sunday? (May 16)

New York Islanders vs. Pittsburgh Penguins Game 1 Odds, Pick: Are the Isles a Live Underdog on Sunday? (May 16) article feature image

Al Bello/Getty Images. Pictured: Sidney Crosby

Islanders vs. Penguins Odds

Islanders Odds+108
Penguins Odds-126
TimeSunday, 12 p.m. ET
Odds as of Saturday and via FanDuel NJ

Sometimes the betting market can surprise you. For instance, I think most people would have thought that the Pittsburgh Penguins would be bigger favorites over the New York Islanders in Game 1 of their best-of-7 playoff series.

On the surface, the Penguins seem to be a very attractive bet as a short favorite. The Pens were dynamite down the stretch, they have home-ice advantage and they took six of eight games against the Islanders. So if all these signals are pointing to Pittsburgh, why is the series-opener priced like a virtual coin flip?

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Are the Penguins Legitimate Contenders?

No team had a better stretch-run than the Pittsburgh Penguins. At 18-5-2, Pittsburgh was tied with Colorado for the best points percentage in the NHL over the last 25 games of the season. During that span the Penguins won 17 games in regulation, posted a +27 goal differential and scored 3.88 goals per game. Those numbers paint a picture of dominance and there's no denying that it was a dynamic stretch of hockey from Pittsburgh, but a lot of handicapping comes down to poking holes in runs like the one that the Penguins put together over the last two months.

You can only beat the team that is in front of you, but it is worth noting that 12 of Pittsburgh's final 25 games came against the New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres. And despite that soft schedule the Penguins were not the cat's meow at 5-on-5. While the Penguins had a robust 58.2% goal share at 5-on-5 over their last 25 contests, their underlying numbers left a bit to be desired as Pittsburgh skated to a 49.2% expected goals rate and a 47.95% high-danger chance rate.

Those numbers, and the discrepancy between Pittsburgh's actual and expected metrics, were a theme through the season:

Goals For per 60 minutes (5-on-5)2.732.47
Goals Against per 60 (5-on-5)2.171.97
Goal Differential per 60 (5-on-5)+0.56+0.5
Expected Goals per 60 (5-on-5)2.092.24
Expected Goals Against per 60 (5-on-5)2.152.07
Expected Goal Differential per 60 (5-on-5)-0.06+0.17
High-Danger Scoring Chances per 60 (5-on-5)9.4411.27
High-Danger Scoring Chances Allowed per 60 (5-on-5)10.28.78
Power Play %23.68%18.75%
Penalty Kill %77.42%83.7%
Expected Save Percentage94.04%94.97%
Save Percentage (starting goalie).909.930
Goals Saved Above Expectation (starting goalie)-9.13+9.55

Expected goals (also known as xG) is a predictive statistic that gives an indication of whether results are based on sustainable factors like a steady creation of scoring chances, or whether it is down to aspects such as shooting luck or outstanding goaltending.

Simply put, an expected goals rate (xGF%) above 50% is considered good because it means a team is creating the majority of the scoring chances. Anything below 50% is usually a sign that a team is struggling to control play.

xG numbers and advanced stats cited from Evolving Hockey, MoneyPuck and Natural Stat Trick.

Talented teams, especially ones with Sidney Crosby, don't need to dominate at 5-on-5 to have success. Players like Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust and Kris Letang will usually make good on enough scoring chances over the course of a season, but in a best-of-7 against a sturdy defense with a great goaltender those chances may be at a premium and will be harder to put away.

The Goaltending Battle

It is no secret that winning a playoff series usually boils down to the goaltending matchup. Last summer, the Penguins were big favorites in the Qualifying Round against the Montreal Canadiens but fell short in large part due to the goaltending mismatch between Matt Murray and Carey Price.

Goaltending is incredibly volatile and hard to project from game to game, but there is a chance that the Penguins run into a similar situation against the Isles this time around. Semyon Varlamov played at a Vezina-candidate level for the Islanders this season and was especially good down the stretch. The 33-year-old Russian had the third-best save percentage (.930) and sixth-best Goals Saved Above Expectation (+9.55) among goalies who played in at least 10 games in 2021.

Not only was Varlamov talismanic in the blue paint, but the defense in front of him was also exemplary. According to MoneyPuck, the Islanders had the highest expected save percentage in the NHL this season. In other words, no team made life easier on their goaltender than the Isles did.

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Pittsburgh's goaltending situation is much more mercurial than New York's. Tristan Jarry has had his moments this season, but his overall numbers (.909 SV%, -9.13 GSAx) pale in comparison to Varlamov's. It would probably be wise for the Penguins to go with Casey DeSmith (.913 SV%, +3.89 GSAx) over Jarry, but Mike Sullivan gave the lion's share of the minutes to Jarry in the regular season so I'd assume he'll get the first crack at the Islanders. (Update: Casey DeSmith left practice early on Saturday with a lower-body injury and is considered day-to-day. It is very likely that Jarry starts Game 1).

Which Version of the Islanders Will We Get?

For most of the season the New York Islanders played like legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. Through the first 38 games of the season the Islanders had the fourth-best 5-on-5 goal differential, the third-best expected goals rate and led the NHL in high-danger scoring chance percentage. In other words, the Isles were a force to be reckoned with at even strength.

The Islanders finally started to wobble in late March after they lost Anders Lee to a torn ACL. Their best net-front presence and captain, Lee's impact on the first line was profound and the Isles began to skid as Barry Trotz tried to find the best replacement for Lee on Mat Barzal's wing. It seemed like the Isles found the ideal replacement for Lee by acquiring Kyle Palmieri, but Trotz has preferred to use the former Devil as a middle-six winger rather than with Barzal.

All of this mixing and matching seemed to have a negative impact on the Isles as they skated to a 7-7-3 record and even goal differential in 17 games since acquiring Palmieri.

While the Islanders did see some of their excellent 5-on-5 metrics trend down during that stretch, part of their struggles could be boiled down to an offense that scored on just 6.1% of their shots at even strength in their last 17 games. That was the worst mark in the NHL during that stretch, so some positive regression wouldn't be surprising for a deep offense that had six players that scored at least 12 goals this season. The Islanders are rightly known as a defensive power, but their stinginess often causes folks to overlook a well-balanced, deep forward group that created the sixth-most high-danger scoring chances at 5-on-5 this season.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images. Pictured: Semyon Varlamov

Islanders vs. Penguins Best Bet

There are a lot of signals that are pointing to the Penguins in this matchup. The Pens won six of the eight meetings with the Islanders in the regular season, they finished the season in much stronger fashion and they have plenty of starpower at the top of their roster. However, the fact that this game is lined this tight should tell you something about the Isles — their ceiling is quite high.

It's also worth noting that Trotz's Islanders seem to know how to use resets to their advantage. The Islanders have gotten off to great starts in all three of Trotz's seasons behind the bench and they also stormed out of the gates in The Bubble last summer. All of this is to say that I think there's a better chance we see The Good Islanders rather than The Pedestrian Islanders when this series kicks off on Sunday afternoon.

With that being the case, I think there's plenty of value backing the Islanders in a number of different ways ahead of Game 1. I think the Islanders are worth a bet to win Game 1 at +110 or better, to win the series at +125 or better and to win the Stanley Cup at 20/1 or better.

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